Minnesota Gophers Football: Could Tommy Olson Start as a True Freshman?

Well now that the 2011 recruiting class has been put to bed, I figure it's high time we start seeing where these kids will fit in. Our greatest areas of need for this class were seen as O-line, receiver, d-back, and linebacker, and those were addressed pretty well. While some JUCO guys were recruited to help at some of those need areas, offensive line, where we're really lacking in experience, was one position Coach Jerry Kill and OC/line coach Matt Limegrover decided NOT to bring in Juco-transfers. Instead, they recruited six kids, all but one of whom will be coming from high school (Josh Campion spent a year at prep school in Virginia in 2010, but is said to already be on campus and will be participating in spring ball).

Now Coach Kill is not a man of hyperbole. While Tim Brewster would hype every incoming recruit as "Jesus crossed with whoever the best player who's ever played his position", Kill in his inital press conference was quick to downplay the hype, saying all these kids are just "paper tigers" until they get on the field and prove something. Refreshing, to be sure. So that made his statements, and those of Limegrover, about incoming freshman Tommy Olson all the more surprising.

True freshmen offensive linemen usually just don't walk in and play in the Big Ten. It's one of the most physical leagues in the country, and the jump from high school ball to the Big Ten is enormous for a kid who's having to block defensive players that are as much as five years older, and have had so much more time to develop and gain strength in a college program. Unless they absolutely have to, BCS conference programs redshirt their offensive linemen to give them a full year of strength, conditioning, and of course eating, at a D1 level to help prepare them for the riggors of the college game. So the fact Kill (in his various radio interviews) and Limegrover are talking about Olson "being physically ready to go", that says one of two things to me: either Olson really IS this good, or our depth is really that bad.

Or both. While the Gophers graduated four seniors along the line (T's Jeff Wills and Matt Carufel, G Dom Alford, and C DJ Burris) the team still returns four players with starting experience, three of them seniors. Chris Bunders has started 28 games at guard in his career (three as a redshirt frosh in 2008, and every game the past two years) and is one of two players that is an iron-clad lock to start again in 2011. Ryan Wynn will have the inside track to be the starting center, as he was the primary backup at that spot in 2010 and had one start in the win against Illinois. He missed all of 2009 with a back injury, but started all 13 games as a redshirt-freshman in 2008 (at guard, I believe). Ryan Orton started three games in 2010 at tackle, and has seven starts as a guard in two seasons before that. He'll be given every opportunity to start at guard or tackle in 2011.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is your entire group of experienced starters that have been on campus for more than two years. That's it. This is the depth issue the coaches were worried about, and why they pushed so hard for o-linemen in this recruiting class. However, it's not to say the line is lacking talent. Tommy Olson may just be "that good" but there's some young quality linemen he's going to be competing with for a starting spot.

The first is his older brother Ed, who after redshirting in 2009, started eight games at tackle in 2010, and I believe is the other guy who's a lock to start in 2011. He certainly experienced some growing pains last year, but was starting to put it together as the season went along. So with Ed at one tackle, Bunders at one guard, and Wynn at center, that leaves guard and tackle open. Olson was listed as a guard by the recruiting services, and with good feet and athleticism for his size, it's likely where he'll end up as a Gopher. The other tackle spot then should be a battle between sophomore Brooks Michel and redshirt frosh Jimmy Gjere. Michel was a primary backup at tackle last season, and while he didn't see much action, he received high praise from the previous coaching staff for the way he was developing. At 6'7 and 311 pounds his size and strength certainly have to be appealing to the new coaching staff, but I think he'll have to have an amazing spring and summer to beat out Gjere.

Gjere, if you remember back one whole year, was the 2010 version of Tommy Olson. Seantrell Henderson got all of the attention in Minnesota as the nation's #1 offensive lineman (and according to some the top overall prospect), but Gjere was no slouch. He was rated as a top 20 tackle in the country (17 by Rivals, 18 by Scout), and at 6'7 and 300 pounds straight out of high school, he had the potential to help a struggling Gophers offensive line right out of the gate. Still, despite his immense size, talent, and potential, Gjere still redshirted in 2010.

Had Kill been our coach last year, you wonder if he would have pushed Gjere to play like he's thinking of doing with Olson. Yes, the 2010 o-line had four seniors and a bunch of experienced guys...but how good did they end up being? The Gophs O-line had been subpar in 2009 and for most of 2010 (the offensive stats weren't great in the win in Illinois, yet they somehow manhandled a really good Iowa defense to take back The Pig in the final game. Explanations? I have none, other than they got tired of Iowa kicking their ass every year and decided to finally do something about it), so while experience is nice, it doesn't do squat if the experienced guys aren't very good. Of course, Brewster was coaching for his job the past two seasons, so he wasn't about to gamble on young and inexperienced players unless he absolutely had to (like in the secondary). At O-line (and at QB), he certainly chose not to. Still, it's not like Brew's decision will hurt Gjere. Sure a season of playing in the Big Ten could have helped him last year, but a season of strength and conditioning while he shirted certainly didn't hurt. But yeah, I'm expecting some big, big things from Gjere and I'm betting the new coaching staff will love him.

So that leaves one guard spot available. Orton will be a candidate, and he's one of those "experienced" guys. But how good is he? Certainly he's not more athletic or physically talented than Olson, but is his experience in the Big Ten enough? If Orton's not deemed worthy of a starter, it wouldn't necessarily be a bad spot, as his experience at both tackle and guard would be great as a backup at multiple positions. Soph Zach Mottla is a former walk-on and showed up on the Gophs 2-deep depth chart at guard to start 2010, but I don't believe he received much playing time, if any (at least according to his bio). Another possibility could be fellow frosh Campion, who is a year older than Olson, already weighs 325, and perhaps his biggest advantage is that he's already on campus. Campion will get to participate in spring ball, start learning the offense and get a chance to impress coaches before Olson gets to campus this summer. Campion wasn't as highly decorated out of high school two years ago as Olson, but he was still rated as a 3 star prospect, so there's some definite potential there.

FBT believes Olson could even get a shot at center, citing his versatility and Kill's penchant for pulling guards and centers, but that's the first I've seen mentioned of it. Still, with Wynn the only experienced center on the roster, it's certainly a possibility. Other guys in the mix on the o-line depth chart include redshirt frosh Sconnie natives Matt Eggen and Zach Epping, as well as mammoth Floridian Johnathan Ragoo, who tips the scales at 6'7 and 325 pounds (and I believe those measurements are as of last year, so he's likely even bigger!). I would imagine the other four o-line recruits from 2011 will all be redshirted, including twins Kyle and Luke McAvoy, who were featured today by Phil Miller.

So yes, as Miller mentions in the McAvoy article you have three fifth year seniors, plus sophs Ed Olson and Brooks Michel, who have played even a snap, and everyone else is somewhat of an unknown at this point. Certainly depth is an issue, and if there's injuries to any of those five (especially Bunders and Wynn, as the only experienced center) things could get REALLY interesting in a hurry. It's why even if Tommy Olson can't beat out someone for a starting spot, he still might not redshirt because everyone else on the line after the three 5th year guys are just so young.

It's certainly a little worrisome that we're so thin on experience right now, but two things that give me optimisim are that there's definitely some ability in these young guys- including Olson and Campion- and we've finally got coaches who have proven they can run the ball and know how to coach offensive line. Kill and Limegrover have been successful at all of their previous stops, and their offenses have been primarily run-based attacks. They believe it can be successful in the Big Ten, and if that happens, it means it'll have to start with the O-line. And if these guys believe Olson will have a chance to start despite being a true freshman, I'm going to take that as a sign that maybe he IS just that good, because I do believe while inexperience, are offensive line is not THAT bad- they have talent, they just need a little seasoning, and Coach Kill and Limegrover are the ones to provide it.

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